Whakarongo Mai! Blaming Migrants Won’t Solve Our Housing Crisis

Poll posted on the Māori Party Facebook Page on September 22nd, 2020. Text reads: "This week we will be launching our Whānau Build Policy and we want to hear from you. Let us know your thoughts: "Should immigration be reduced to free up the supply of housing for Māori?" 950 people have reacted, 477 commented, and 33 shared.

Election time is when all kinds of political footballs come out of the cupboard and get kicked around in public. And by footballs, I mean, people. People are being symbolically kicked around in the form of party platforms and policy promises, and there’s a common pattern to who is the football. The latest football game is the Māori Party’s announcement to reduce (or curb) immigration to address the housing crisis or, in their words, to “free up the supply of housing for Māori.” For many of us who are Māori, we are desperate for a politics that will start from a place of mana motuhake. We know we need to shift power in a way that honours our tūpuna, and creates a better world for our mokopuna. But is reducing immigration really the answer to this?

I thought I’d start up a kōrero with two of my close friends, and political accomplices, MZ and Gayaal Iddamalgoda about xenophobia, housing and more. 

Kassie: Kia ora kōrua, thanks heaps for being  part of this conversation – especially when it is you, your families and communities that are impacted by this issue. Can you tell me a little about your own whakapapa and who you are?

MZ: Kia ora Kassie! Thanks for starting this conversation. I te taha o tōku māmā, no Henan ōku tūpuna. I te taha o tōku pāpā, nō Sichuan me Guizhou ōku tūpuna. I was born in Northern China and migrated with my parents to Aotearoa as a child in the 90s. I grew up in Tāmaki Makaurau. I’m currently living on the Dish With One Spoon territory in Tkaronto/Toronto, Turtle Island. This land belongs to The Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, the Anishinabek Nation, the Huron-Wendat, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Métis. I’m here as an international student doing a PhD, you could say it’s a second kind of migration experience. 

Gayaal: Kia ora Kassie. I was born in Sri Lanka, my family moved to New Zealand when I was about 4 years old. I grew up in Dunedin and my parents both worked for the University of Otago. Today I live in Wellington and practise law for a trade union. I identify as a socialist and with the international working class.

Kassie: Ngā mihi ki a kōrua. We know each other through different projects, groups and activism, but for the purpose of our readers, I should probably introduce myself too. I te taha o tōku māmā, ko Tararua te maunga, ko Hokio te awa, ko Tainui te waka, ko Ngāti Raukawa te iwi, ko Ngāti Pareraukawa te hapū. I te taha o tōku pāpā, no Engarani, nō Kōtarani, nō Itāria ahau. 

I know you to have both done different work with migrant communities over the years – why is this so important to you? 

MZ: I feel a sense of responsibility to future generations and to migrant communities. I think having witnessed a lot of the struggles of my family growing up and having my own, I can relate to a lot of other migrants especially from communities of colour. 

Being 1.5 generation, migrating as a child and having more privilege in terms of language and cultural knowledge of the dominant culture compared to my parents’ generation and newer migrants, I feel like I have some responsibility to use that. Being both partially accepted and alienated in migrant and mainstream worlds is a unique position to be in. We can act as translators, and I feel a lot of the work I’ve been involved in migrant communities is essentially translation work, not just in terms of language but also in terms of cultural, political, welfare, housing and legal systems for migrant women and youth who have been through domestic violence, migrant workers exploited by their bosses, migrant women who have been sexually harassed at work etc.  

As activists who want to see a better world, we also need to do work “where we are” and within communities we are part of. A lot of the community work I’ve done has been with migrant and refugee youth, predominantly young women and non-binary folks and within these communities to build futures free from violence, and while domestic violence is a huge issue, many young migrants and their families simultaneously have to deal with racism and structural issues related to immigration policies. 

“Where we are” is also on Māori land. I also wanted to connect with migrant Asian communities to facilitate learning about Te Tiriti and colonisation in Aotearoa so we don’t replicate anti-Māori racism and to move towards supporting tangata whenua movements towards decolonisation. 

Gayaal: Working for migrant rights is so important, I feel, not only because of the humanitarian concerns of the migrant and refugee community, but because migrants and refugees are an integral part of the working class community. 

Bosses, politicians and capitalist exploiters rely on dividing the working class against each other. Racism and prejudice and migrants and refugees is a genius way of getting ordinary working class people to point the finger away from those who are truly exploiting them and blame the weakest members of their own class and community.  It is those people who need to be challenged, not migrants. Migrants are just used as their scapegoats.

So why is it so important to me? Well, yes because I am a migrant myself and I care about my family and my community. But that’s not the only reason.

I believe that when working people reject anti-migrant scapegoating and demand a better life from the rich and powerful, that is when we really stand a chance of making the world a better place.

– Gayaal

When migrants are safe and secure and treated with dignity, that’s when all working people flourish. If we are divided among ourselves, then we are weak and easy to control. 

Kassie: You both do incredible work, and I see the ripple effects everywhere I go, so thank you. 

I’m still learning about all the ways we talk about manuhiri (guests) to our country, is there anything our readers should know about the language we use when we talk about migrants? 

MZ: Definitely, I have also struggled with the available language. Migrants technically can refer to anyone who migrates, and while the majority of migrants are actually white and come from European countries, they are almost never what most people have in mind when the word “migrant” is invoked. I would prefer using the language of “tauiwi of colour” to talk about non-white migrants and their descendents in Aotearoa. 

But I remember the backlash against Professor Margaret Mutu when her words were taken out of context as an attack against “white immigration” – I think that was the first time I had seen white immigration named in the Pākehā media. In my experiences though, “migrant” is mostly used as shorthand for Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Latin American communities – never really for Anglo-white migrants. 

Migrant is also a broad category and used to generally cover those who were born outside of Aotearoa, but there are differences to access to state benefits and rights to health care depending on your immigration status. Migrants who don’t have PR (permanent residency), who are on temporary visas (partner visa, visitor visa, work visa, student visa) have a much more precarious status in Aotearoa, they don’t have access to free hospital care, student loans, student allowance or welfare benefits, state housing, you can’t do sex work without the threat of deportation. 

“Migrant” is also often used in opposition to “refugee” in some spaces, where “migrants” are seen as more privileged and migrating by choice and “refugees” are people who have been forced to leave their country for protection. 

While there is definitely a difference, I have seen white people use this in a way that sets up a division between refugees and migrants to compete for resources, and “refugees” are constructed as more deserving of government support etc. but this framing still doesn’t really question the political context of who has control over resources and power to distribute them, it doesn’t address institutional white supremacy or racism in our immigration system. 

Gayaal: I think Mengzhu makes some really good points about how words like ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ are used in political discourse. It is true that terms like ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ can be used to try and divide communities of colour into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ categories. 

It’s also true that while ‘migrant’ can mean anyone who migrates, it, along with refugee, can be used as code for ‘non-white foreigner’. I vividly remember being attacked by a white woman after a political debate that I participated in when she criticised me for advocating for migrant rights but was herself from the UK! When challenged on this, she informed me that she was an ‘expat’! 

In my advocacy, I try to ‘reclaim’ some of these terms so that we can actually talk about and organise our communities. Migrants and people from refugee backgrounds are part of the economic backbone of New Zealand. They are workers and contributors, and are a valued part of our society.

Kassie: It’s so good to talk about both the distinctions, but also the similarities that we share. Because the way that people are talked about says a lot about what we think of them. So when political parties talk about migrants and immigration, who do you think they are talking about?

MZ: I think we have a general idea that they probably don’t mean European or white immigrants. Even if they don’t specify race/ethnicity, the interpretation from the majority of the population will think of migrants of colour. Even if they don’t specify race/ethnicity, the impact of that narrative will be racism targeted at migrants of colour. I mean, we have already seen the devastating violence of that discourse on March 15th, 2019. 

Gayaal: Yes, the migrants and immigrants attacked by mainstream political parties are not white. They are not from European countries [where the vast majority of immigrants actually come from]. This is not the kind of immigrant who is seen as a threat in racist imaginations. Words like ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’ are coded words, they refer to people of colour and anti-migrant politics in New Zealand is straight up racist. 

Anti-migrant racism leads to violence and bullying against our non-white communities. I know this personally. I’ve lived practically my whole life in Aotearoa, the only language I speak with any degree of competency is English.

I grew up here, studied here, worked here and loved here, but in any crowd, I’d be the one picked on by an anti-migrant racist. I’d be the one singled out for stealing a job or ‘bludging’ resources.

– Gayaal

Why? Because I’m not white. Yeah, you can say that ‘migrant’ isn’t a racial term, but anti- migrant prejudice sure seems racist to me.

This kind of underhanded racism has been brewing in New Zealand for a long time. It plays on ugly unspoken racist attitudes, some of these being the undigested remnants of the anti-Asian racism that had been rife in New Zealand’s early colonial history. 

It stews and grows and feeds the ugliest parts of our society and yes, the fascist violence that erupted in Christchurch on March 15th, 2019 was a direct result of this coded racism that has been allowed to flourish in mainstream politics.

Artwork by Mirama Grace-Smith made after the Christchurch shootings, 2019. The print shows a Māori young woman with a moko kauae (traditional tattoo) and feather in her hair giving a hongi (traditional greeting) to a Muslim woman wearing a purple hijab. Both have the eyes closed and tears are about to fall.
Artwork by Mirama Grace-Smith made after the Christchurch shootings, 2019. Photo taken by Miriama Grace-Smith.

Kassie: I always think that every idea and action has a whakapapa. And you’re right. March 15th did not come from nowhere. There is a history of anti-migrant racism that I can remember since when I was young. In some ways, the Christchurch attacks should have come as no surprise in this context. 

What are some of the common stories or narratives that political parties say about immigrants and where did they come from?

MZ: Apart from causing the housing crisis, we are said to be stealing jobs and causing unemployment. A drain on the system. “Flooding” the country. Causing Auckland traffic. Last elections, the Labour Party tried to link immigration to youth suicide. 

Immigrants are likened to natural disasters, to financial burdens with the power to vanquish “New Zealand values” and cause moral deterioration. 

There are specific Islamophobic, anti-Pacific Islander and anti-Chinese examples but I don’t want to give space for that kind of hate speech. Immigrants have been blamed for the political and economic system’s incompetence at meeting the needs of the population. It’s a scapegoating tactic so we end up spending time fighting each other rather than the real enemy. 

I can almost make a band t-shirt “tour list” of where this rhetoric has come from and been: Labour Party 2015 – Twyford and the “Chinese sounding last names”. NZ First 1990s – Asian Invasion. Labour Party and National Party 1970s – 1980s – Dawn Raids targeting Pacific Islanders (most overstayers were from Australia, the UK and South Africa). NZ anti-Chinese immigration policies 1881-1952 – Yellow Peril.

But really, racism and xenophobia has been the soundtrack of NZ’s colonial history, it’s just more audible at certain moments.

– MZ

This is all connected to global colonial history. Colonial anti-Asian immigration legislation existed on Turtle Island and Australia too. If we want to go deeper, this racism goes back to European/British colonialism in India and China – the Opium War, where Britain coercively introduced opium to China to make the population docile and dependent, and the destruction of India’s textile industry where Indian weavers were imprisoned and assaulted. I was reading the Intimacies of Four Continents by Lisa Lowe who contextualises Asian indentured labour in North and Central America as Anglo colonisers’ response to the abolition of slavery, to replace African slave labour with “free” Asian labour to continue work extracting from stolen Native land. 

If we think transnationally, we can trace all of this back to colonial capitalism and white entitlement to other peoples’ land and labour for power and profit.  

Gayaal: As I said, anti-Asian racism goes way back into New Zealand’s early colonial past and there are certainly recognisable strands.

It’s really useful for me to see racism in different forms as a political tool for the ruling class. What does the ruling class need? Is there a brand of racism that goes with it? In the 1950s and 60s Pasifika migration was encouraged and employers welcomed this pool of cheap labour to fuel a booming manufacturing economy. There was no political interest in ‘overstayers’ (in fact most ‘overstayers’ were from the UK), but when the economy faltered and the manufacturing sector was not so profitable, Pasifika migrants became useful scapegoats for social and economic problems facing the working class.

Likewise, Islamophobia in New Zealand did not spring out of nowhere. Our ruling class saw great benefit in supporting the United States in its imperialist adventures in the Middle East and fear of a Muslim threat was subtly drummed up in mainstream New Zealand politics. 

I remember the rabid speech that John Key made in 2015 when we decided to send more troops to Iraq to support the United States in the supposed war against ISIL. The rhetoric of defending New Zealand against an existential threat posed by Middle Eastern folks was a fundamental part of New Zealand’s imperialist policy and people like the Christchurch terrorist lapped it up. Islamophobia has nothing to do with a real threat to this country and has everything to do with supporting the imperialist invasion and plunder of the Middle East.

The housing crisis and Twyford’s ‘Chinese sounding surnames?’ nonsense also does not come out of nowhere. Here in Wellington, and all across New Zealand, good social housing is being left to rot, or being demolished or sold to developers. Wealthy landlords buy up multiple houses and live off the fat of their rental properties, exploiting working people by controlling the very shelters they need to survive. The housing crisis has been caused by decades of neoliberalism and the deliberate choice not to invest in good and affordable housing for ordinary New Zealanders. 

Yet instead of addressing this lack of political will to challenge landlords and developers, our political parties try to racialise the problem.

– Gayaal

It is a cheap and cynical trick to avoid dealing with the real issues that caused the housing crisis; a political and economic system that does not prioritise housing as a human right.

MZ: It’s also worth adding that the “positive” narratives around migrants from political parties which can still reduce migrants to our economic contributions. When migrants are talked about “positively” and sometimes we do this ourselves, we talk about how much we contribute to the NZ economy, pay taxes, are law abiding citizens, “enrich” NZ multiculturalism etc. Our worth is then measured with our value for the capitalist economy and for NZ nation-building. 

Neither of these projects I actually want to contribute to. The political responses to Asian international students being physically assaulted in Auckland in 2016 was largely about maintaining NZ’s reputation to continue attracting international students because that is a huge source of income for the country. I think we need to be careful not to play into the “migrants deserve to be here because of their contribution to the economy”, it’s also dehumanising and internalising a colonial capitalist value system.  

Photo of a group of Muslims visiting the protest site Ihumātao. There are women holding a banner smiling, with children at the front. The banner reads: "Muslims Stand With Ihumātao."
A group of Muslims visit Ihumātao in support of returning land back to local Māori.

Kassie: Wow, this history runs deep! And it connects across the world. Once you start pulling on a thread, our whole system starts to unravel, and it becomes clearer that migrants are painted as the scapegoat for, well, almost everything.

Aside from the obvious, how do these narratives harm our relationships with each other and impact migrants of colour in Aotearoa? 

We know each other as friends, accomplices or comrades – how do these narratives affect us and our relationships? Because for me, as Māori, I get really upset when I see other Māori treating you, your families and communities as the problem. 

Gayaal: Kia ora Kassie, this is such an important kōrero to have. For both our communities. Both migrants and Māori are oppressed by the structures of white supremacy in New Zealand. But cynically, those same structures benefit from pitting our communities against each other. Migrants from Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds are often told that we are ‘model minorities’, that we are more deserving than Māori because we are ‘hardworking’.

This is complete rubbish and it breaks my heart when our people internalise this colonial nonsense. Like Māori, we represent some of the lowest paid but most essential workers in the country.

Like Māori, we are in the supermarkets, in construction, driving, couriering, cleaning, the ones who were too valuable to stop working during the Covid lockdown! But who are also the most undervalued, overworked and underpaid. 

– Gayaal

As Māori and migrant activists, we have to see that our strength is in unity against the structures of white supremacy. We migrant activists need to tell our people that in Aotearoa, that Tino Rangatiratanga is our safety belt. A strong Māori working class movement is our future. Likewise, Maori have to understand that we are close to you and our struggle is intertwined with yours.

This was really clear in the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting. The Muslim community and tangata whenua instinctively embraced each other. In the face of white supremacist violence, they recognised each other as victims and Māori immediately related. While the media were saying ‘this is not us’, Maori were saying ‘this is not the first time this has happened.’ So yes, our strength is together.

MZ: I get really upset and angry when Asian communities come out with anti-Māori racist narratives too and at times like these, I am reminded that there is more work to do in terms of relationship-building. But I have also seen so many Māori friends challenge this narrative and it’s giving us an opportunity to talk openly. I find it really abhorrent that homelessness and housing issues disproportionately affect Māori on your own land and there is absolutely a housing crisis that needs to be resolved. I’m interested in how we can address the roots of that problem. 

Kassie: So what is the real root of the housing crisis? What is all this political football kicking distracting us from?

I’d personally much rather take aim at the people from our own country who stole our land and continue to make mega profits off it every year. I’d rather challenge the idea of housing even being a commodity that can be sold or rented on the market. It doesn’t make sense to sell off parts of Papatūānuku to the highest bidder, instead of living in a state of kaitiakitanga, and care for people and place.

MZ: Yeah hard out, individual private property ownership started this whole system and spread of capitalism that has since been destroying people, land, animals, oceans and this earth, creating these extreme wealth inequalities. 

I hate to be that broken record that blames everything on capitalism, but the problem really is capitalism. 

I don’t have to tell you, but for other migrants, how a lot of Māori land was taken was through this system of registering individual owners. With the Native Land Court, you could only have 10 people’s names on a title right?  

We have to be able to imagine a world beyond capitalism if we are serious about making sure everyone has access to decent housing.

– MZ

I’d love to see a future Aotearoa where land is returned to tangata whenua and where we can shift to relationships with land on the terms of mana whenua that doesn’t treat land as a commodity. 

Gayaal: Yes, it’s capitalism. It’s a system that lines the pockets of landlords. It does not matter what race, creed or religion the landlord is, the landlord is a social parasite. It is the system that views the things everybody needs to survive as ‘assets’.This is the root of the housing crisis. Not migrants. 

There is plenty of housing stock, even with the deterioration of social housing. There is certainly no housing crisis for rich landlords! It’s the system that allows a few people to own and control more than what they need, and it needs to be dismantled.

Kassie: What is the antidote to xenophobia? We don’t have to be like this, right? 

MZ: Nah, we don’t and it mostly hasn’t been like this in our relationships with each other. There are many stories of solidarity from our histories and present. Moana Jackson shared stories with us at the Te Tiriti and Asians public talk in Pōneke in 2018 that instigated a Pōneke group of Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga.

These stories of Chinese and Māori solidarity are not mine to retell but they go back to gold mining days in Otago and conscription resistance in Waikato. I think also recognising that migrants of colour and Māori families and communities overlap rather than existing in separate isolated spaces. 

I reckon the antidote is shifting our attention to the root causes of the problem and building better relationships with each other to tackle those roots.

The answers and visions are already in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and already in practice within communities.

– MZ

It has been very rare that I have experienced hostility or xenophobia from Māori, in general, Māori have been much warmer and hospitable than Pākehā.  

Gayaal: Agreed, we do not need to be like this. We do not live in a world of shortage. Shortage, scarcity, a system of inequality, these are not natural, they are created and imposed. They reflect the choices and priorities of the wealthy . 

What’s the antidote? Working class consciousness is a good place to start. In Aotearoa, we need to learn our history. When you look at the history of racism and xenophobia, it’s hard not to see how the same lies and deceptions have been used over and over again to stop working people from seeking solidarity with each other.

Photo of a group of Asian people smiling and standing behind a banner reading: "Asians Supporting Tino Rangatatiratanga."
Aotearoa based group, Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga.

Kassie: Far out. Even though we talk about these things often, this conversation has really made me think even more about this topic.

You’ve driven home for me how anti-migrant racism almost always affects those who are people of colour first and worst – and how that racism is relied on to drum up hate towards foreigners who are apparently taking everything from us. It’s such an old story, and also, an easy one to peddle among Māori – because we literally have had foreigners arrive and take (almost) everything from us. We only need the slightest hint that migrants are here to take anything, and it will send us off into a very real, embodied panic about everything we have lost. 

I understand that as Māori, tino rangatatiratanga and mana motuhake includes decision making power about immigration. If we see Te Tiriti o Waitangi as the first immigration policy, we have always needed a stake and say about who arrives in our country. 

But the latest discussion on reducing immigration to free up housing supply, strikes me as the same old scapegoating that comes out every election season. It feels like a cheap, ineffective and dishonest answer to addressing the housing crisis. And it corrodes our relationships between each other, where often we have more in common, than we do in difference. 

Many of us Māori have real māmae on this issue, but we don’t need to be like the colonisers!

Let’s find our own way to be tika and pono when it comes to immigration.

– Kassie

To grasp at the real root of our problems around housing and whenua. To challenge our own xenophobia and anti-migrant racism that is absolutely present in our communities. To choose to see each other and be in solidarity in genuine ways. That feels like manaakitanga to me. We do it all the time in small ways, so let’s make sure it’s reflected in our politics too.

Ngā mihi nunui ki a kōrua. Thank you so much for your time, thoughts and experience on this kaupapa. I think it challenges us to all do better. Go well this election season, and let’s change the change the game and fix the broken record before the next one.

For more reading on migrants, Māori, racism, and solidarity, check these links out: